I am in awe, and its an awe that goes very well with the late summer sun that casts shadows of the vinyl pool chairs. I’ve just finished Virginia Woolf’s lyrical and experimental The Waves (originally published in 1931) and it hits me like nothing I’ve ever read before. From its first crystalline images, it absolutely races, guided by the intensely intimate soliloquies of six charming narrators. At once, Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Rhoda and Susan are strikingly different, throwing each passing voice into sharp relief against the musings of the others, but also, they personify a haunting chorus of life’s most plotted questions, calling out to the space between them, they trace the “complete human being we have failed to be.”
Though maybe not a contemporary beach read, The Waves is punctuated by the third-person narration of an anonymous sunny day as it passes on a sandy coast. As the characters describe life as they age, from childhood, to adolescence, adulthood, and finally concluding with the anticipation of death in old age, so too does the sun pass through the sky, shifting the subtleties of the beach scene each time Woolf returns to paint it, like a series of impressionist paintings, obsessed with the same, indifferent cliff. And though it might not depict the steamy love triangle that seems to tangle up so many fictional beach houses in the Hamptons, Woolf does push her characters toward each other endlessly, forcing them constantly into the most familiar human dramas, giving poetic voice to the enduring ambiguities of love, friendship and loss.
One could say reductively (especially if they like to drop terms knowingly, note to self, here comes a keeper!) that The Waves presents the purest example of Woolf’s so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style. I tend to hate that phrase, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish, this book is more than a modernist exercise in the limits of narrative voice, to be discussed in lecture halls as a novel point of evolution and then forgotten. Woolf’s characters speak like the most honest actors on a strange, new stage. Simultaneously they describe reality as it passes objectively before their eyes, like a coffee cup on a table, but also navigate a surreal space with flights of dialogue so surprising that they abstract the human experience to suggest a wholly new awareness, one that escapes the physical laws of time and place. To call it simply a novel would be like lumping an eggplant within a bushel of apples, Woolf herself deemed it a “play-poem.” It is indeed is a kind of evanescent, dramatic experience, somehow enchantingly contained within the solidity of form and phrase. It is at once stunningly unique and familiar, surveying the swirling, furious storm of life as if in the precise eye of the most glorious hurricane.